Newbie takes down defending Bighorn Gravel champion in discipline debut

GoPro Mountain Games champion and 41-year-old Olympian Erin Huck rounded out the podium

Michaela Thompson rides in a group up Gypsum Creek Road during Sunday's Big Horn Gravel event.
Linda Guerrette/Courtesy photo

Michaela Thompson couldn’t ask for a better start to her gravel bike career.

The Fort Lewis College student and Segment 28 professional mountain bike racer, who joined Sarah Sturm and Ellen Campbell on the three-person Specialized/Sram/Rapha gravel team earlier this week, won her gravel debut at Sunday’s Bighorn Gravel event in Gypsum, covering the 77-mile Ram’s Horn Escape route in 5 hours, 23 minutes and 59 seconds.

“I’ve realized I love to ride my bike far and long,” last year’s Telluride 100 winner said. “I was like, this is actually pretty fun … I’m super grateful for (Sturm) bringing me on and believing in me.”

Defending champion Alexis Skarda, who was a late addition to the field as she monitored some injuries post-UNBOUND and pre-Crusher in the Tushar — two Life Time Grand Prix Series events — was the early leader.

“I just wanted to make sure it was the right move in-between those two races,” the Grand Junction cyclist explained regarding her registration calculus. Though Skarda’s back forced a DNF in Kansas, it held up during the rugged and relentless tour of some of Eagle County’s pristine forest roads and rowdy single track.  

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“It was fine. I was definitely feeling it on the descents, so I’m still trying to figure out what to do to adjust and make the geometry maybe a little easier on the bike,” she said.

Alexis Skarda sets the early pace and Erin Huck keeps her in sight.
Linda Guerrette/Courtesy photo

It was Skarda, followed closely by Erin Huck — the multiple-time (including this year) GoPro Mountain Games XC mountain bike winner and 2021 Olympian — and then Sturm and Thompson in third and fourth at the top of the initial, steep Red Hill Road Climb. When the lead pack gunned the descent, Thompson, who came into the race hoping to “just ride smooth and have fun,” decided to pump the brakes.

“I was kind of like, ‘OK I’m just going to ride my own race,'” she said.

Her conservatism didn’t pay off, though. Roughly one-eighth of the way through the day, Thompson’s chain careened off as she rode over a bump.

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“I was like, ‘oh no … OK … I hope this isn’t going to happen all day,” she reflected. It didn’t.

She caught onto Sturm and worked in a large pack to rip up Gypsum Creek Road. Thompson moved in front of her teammate on the Mayflower Gulch downhill single track, using her mountain bike background to make quick and easy work of a section that lived up to it’s billing in putting more than a few less-experienced riders sufficiently out of their comfort zones.

“It was pretty chunky and steep,” Thompson described. “My hands were so tensed up — it was brutal. But yeah I was kind of like, just need to stay smooth.”

Thompson works her way through some single track halfway through Sunday’s race.
Linda Guerrette/Courtesy photo

Skarda said in normal circumstances, she would have been all for the course’s new section.

“My back was hurting, so I didn’t as much today, but I think it’s a great addition. It makes it interesting,” she said.

In-between Skarda and Thompson, Huck was riding with a fearless flow, which belied her age and relatively new mom status.

“The single track was the highlight for sure,” the 41-year-old mother of a 15-year-old son said with a smile.

Huck worked hard to close the gap on Skarda during the 9-mile, 2,000-foot climb to Fulford. The out-and-back nature allowed her to see the leader as she approached aid station two.

Erin Huck climbs East Brush Creek Road toward Fulford and the second aid station at mile 46.
Linda Guerrette/Courtesy photo

“I saw her come down and I was like, ‘OK, Alexis is right there,'” Huck chronicled. During a quick stop to fill her bottles, Thompson snuck by and moved into second, unbeknownst to Huck.

“I thought I was in second — it wouldn’t have made a difference!” Huck laughed later. “I loved (the course) for probably 3.5 hours and then the mom-watts ran out,” the eventual third-place finisher continued. “I can fake a two hour mountain bike race, but I can’t fake an 80-mile gravel race with 10,000 feet of climbing. I definitely suffered.”

Turning onto Hardscrabble Road at mile 60, Skarda’s lead was large enough that it seemed insurmountable to Thompson.

“I never thought, ‘OK, I’m going to catch her and win,'” she said, recalling the second single track portion, where Skarda’s Santa Cruz frame would appear every switchback or so.

As the temperatures, which started around 45 degrees, soared into the mid-80s on the cloudless, sunny day, even Thompson felt a bit of the hurt mere mortals behind her would share as they crawled up Abrams Gulch, a punishing 20-plus percent grade around mile 68.

“Before the hike-a-bike section, I was like, ‘OK, I think it’s pretty chill to the finish, and then I was hiking up and I’m like, ‘I just want to cry — this is crazy,'” the champion said. “It was awesome though, looking back, but yeah, the last 20 miles of the race was mentally probably the hardest part.”

The final 10 miles wasn’t exactly a coast to the finish. Co-race founder Mike Brumbaugh thought Spring Creek Road was particularly rough this year. During the jarring undulations, Thompson kept Skarda in her sights, but didn’t plot her lethal maneuver until she realized the gap had shrunk considerably with eight miles remaining.

“I saw her ahead, but I was like, I need to ride my own pace because this is a long race and I don’t want to blow up and everything,” she said. “That ended up working out in my favor because I could pretty much ramp it up at the end.”

At the top of one of the course’s final climbs, she flipped a switch.

“I could see her pretty close and I was like, ‘OK, let’s just try it, let’s get to the top of this climb,'” she stated. “And the last dirt descent, I definitely risked it. I was like, ‘I hope I don’t flat.”

Bighorn Gravel co-founders Mike Brumbaugh and Jake Wells celebrate Michaela Thompson’s win in the 77-mile Ram’s Horn Escape on Sunday in Gypsum.
Linda Guerrette/Courtesy photo

Thompson was clear of Skarda by the pavement and rode to victory, with the defending champion 2:47 back. Sturm (5:37:05) finished fourth and the third amigo of the Specialized/Sram/Rapha group, Campbell (5:46:18), rounded out the top five. The top local finisher was Minturn’s Haley Dumke (6:16:51) and Eagle’s Erinn Hoban (7:26:56) took the single speed title.

From left: Alexis Skarda, Michaela Thompson and Erin Huck celebrate their podium positions in the Ram’s Horn Escape race at Bighorn Gravel.
Linda Guerrette/Courtesy photo

Will 2024 bring back both victors?

“Yeah I’d love to come back,” Thompson said.

“I definitely finished this race with a positive attitude and it’s beautiful out here … I love the challenge of it. I’ve done some races where I’m like, ‘OK, I’m not going back to that,’ but this is one I definitely want to come back to.”

Skarda, meanwhile, is hungry for revenge.

“Oh for sure,” she smiled. “I’ll be back.”

Bighorn Gravel women’s results

Ram’s Horn Escape (77-mile)

  1. Michaela Thompson, Durango – 5:23:59
  2. Alexis Skarda, Grand Junction – 5:26:46
  3. Erin Huck, Boulder – 5:32:05

Single speed

Erin Hoban, Eagle – 7:26:56

Little Bighorn (50-mile)

  1. Tam Donelson, Edwards – 3:37:22
  2. Samantha Fanion, Durango – 3:50:13
  3. Julia Walsh, Vail – 3:52:25



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